The same techniques used to make tools smaller for use on space shuttles, are being applied to help develop more compact, robotic surgical instruments. The mechanical engineers working on the project predict that these instruments will be able to fit through surgical incisions so small, that they won’t require sutures or stitches in order to heal.
The development of these small surgical instruments – inspired by the principles of origami – is being conducted at Brigham Young University, in Utah. The team – led by Larry Howell and Spencer Magleby, both professors of mechanical engineering at BYU – have licensed some of their inventions to robotic surgical tools manufacturer, Intuitive Surgical.
Intuitive Surgical’s most notable product is their da Vinci surgical robot which is used to minimize the invasiveness of surgical procedures – including prostate removal – by fitting into just a few very small incisions. According to Howell, the ultimate goal is to decrease the size of the surgical incisions as much as possible.
“To that end, we’re creating devices that can be inserted into a tiny incision and then deployed inside the body to carry out a specific surgical function,” said Howell. Traditional methods used to design and manufacture surgical tools have exhausted their capacity to make the instruments smaller.
To remedy this, the mechanical engineers at BYU have done away with pin joints and separate parts, and instead have used a foldable technique – characteristic of origami – to allow for movement. One of their current projects is to miniaturize robotic forceps to the point where they are able to be inserted into a 3 mm hole.
While nearly any surgical device manufacturer could design a very small instrument, the real challenge is in making sure that the tool is functional once inside the body. In an effort to ensure their tiny medical instruments are as useful as their regular-sized counterparts, the BYU engineers developed a concept known as D-CORE.
The D-CORE is responsible for converting a small, flat shape that can be inserted into a small incision, into a deployed tool capable of completing the surgical task. The research – which was published in the journal, Mechanism and Machine Theory – includes details on how the tools can be manufactured and stored in a single-sheet, along with options in regards to deployment states.
The same principles and technology are currently used by NASA to design space-saving tools used on flight missions. “Those who design spacecraft want their products to be small and compact because space is at a premium on a spacecraft, but once you get in space, they want those same products to be large, such as solar arrays or antennas,” said Magleby. “We’d like something to get quite small to go through the incision, but once it’s inside, we’d like it to get much larger.”
The origami-inspired techniques used by the team at BYU have a wide range of applications in minimally-invasive surgeries. “These small instruments will allow for a whole new range of surgeries to be performed – hopefully one day manipulating things as small as nerves,” said Magleby.